Friday, 3 March 2017

Interview with Chloe Schwenke

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Chloe Schwenke, a human rights and peacebuilding activist, development practitioner, and academic with over three decades of international experience, including 15 years of work while based in the Global South. She is the Director of the Global Program on Violence, Rights, and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women.

Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. As Laverne Cox announced, “Trans is beautiful.” Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with an interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in American society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Chloe: I would hardly say that the transgender community is thriving, simply because a few transgender models and actors become celebrities, and a few trans folks are publishing. Yes, we are making our presence known more emphatically, but we are also facing extraordinary push-back, violence, exclusion, humiliation, scapegoating, and – globally – a rising death rate from extreme violence.
Transgender women of color in this country face extraordinary levels of extreme violence. Data remains thin with a few exceptions, but take a look at the recently released U.S. Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, and you will see a mixed picture – but still, one in which the lived realities of transgender people remains very challenging indeed. We are many, many years away from “thriving”.

Monika: On the other hand, you are one of the very few transgender women, including Prof. Deirdre McCloskey, that have managed to use your talents and education to have a great academic and civil service career. Why there are so few transwomen holding important positions? Our representation is at the level of 0.2-0.3% of the global population. However, this is not the only factor, is it?
Chloe: Without seeming to be self-serving, it is extremely hard to be both transgender and successful in any career that requires extensive education and other experience – I have been blessed with a resilient (some would say “stubborn”) character.
Also, I did not transition until I was in my 50s, so I was able to access opportunities that “out” transgender people struggle mightily to access, especially in terms of employment and parenting.
But delaying my transition imposed an extraordinary emotional strain on me and on my family, and without their support and the support of my faith community (Quakers), I would never have managed to keep it all together and pursue my career as I have done. 
Even with those advantages, my career has been punctuated by an extensive period of under-employment, grueling ordeals (and multiple rejections) in seeking that “next job”, and extreme financial hardships due to the many self-paid costs of my gender transition and the reality that long periods with only short-term consulting assignments do not pay all the bills.
Monika: As you have just said your career was subject to many grueling ordeals. It is said that some of them were inflicted on you by the public administration. In 2008 you were a senior specialist on African development issues, employed by a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) when you announced your transition in 2008. And as a result, you were fired, something which you would not expect from the public administration ...
Chloe: USAID had nothing to do with this decision, and I doubt that they ever even knew anything about this. The consulting firm simply was not prepared to accommodate having a member of staff transition to a new gender, and they had decided that I would be “an embarrassment to the firm” if clients were to see me as Chloe. They, therefore, refused to let me have any client contact (in person or via phone or email) for several months, with the not-unexpected result that I was unable to generate any new projects. That provided them with the official excuse to terminate me.
At the time, which was at a very early and very vulnerable stage of my transition, I was so emotionally shattered by this termination that I signed the release forms that they insisted that I sign. It would be more than two years before I paused to consider whether this termination had been legal. To my chagrin, I discovered that under the laws of Washington, DC, it was not a legal termination – but the statute of limitations was only one year. I was too late to take any action against them for unfair dismissal.

Chloe speaking at a Hillary Clinton election event at
the Howard Theater in Washington, DC in October 2016.

Monika: But in the end, you won when President Obama turned around and appointed you to USAID as one of the first four transgender appointees to the U.S. government. What did you feel then? In my interview with Robyn A. McCutcheon, she indicated that it was your courage that led GLIFAA to fight for inclusion of gender identity in the non-discrimination statements at the Dept. of State and USAID...
Chloe: I was completely taken by surprise when I was invited by the State Department to the first interview for that political appointment. Only much later did I find that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had put my name forward, although the HRC never told me this at the time! It took more than a year to get through all the many interviews, but finally, I had that amazing job! That was an exhilarating experience!
I think that Robyn is being too kind. I simply found that GLIFAA at that time was largely uninformed about gender identity, and I pushed GLIFAA to “educate themselves”. This included having me speak at a GLIFAA event at the Quaker Meeting House in Washington, at which several GLIFAA members actually broke into tears. They were wonderfully supportive once they learned a little about the realities of being transgender.  
Monika: Quakers are members of a Protestant religious movement generally known as the Religious Society of Friends. What is their attitude to transgender women from the standpoint of religion?
Chloe: Quakers are very non-hierarchical, socially quite liberal, and committed to equality. Their attitudes can however vary (on many issues) between individual Quaker Meetings, although there are common Quaker testimonies and values that generally unite most Quakers.
In my case, my particular Quaker Meeting (Adelphi Friends, near College Park, Maryland) knew almost nothing about gender identity issues, but when I came out they embraced me and my family, and they quickly learned a very great deal! They have been unfailingly supportive ever since, and that has generally been my experience of Quakers wherever I go.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being almost the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Chloe: It is gradually getting better, but we still struggle to be able to access opportunities where we can speak out on our unique issues, in our own voices. Generally, we simply get our issues conflated with “gay” issues, and gay and lesbian people often feel comfortable representing our issues – which they do with varying success.
In the end, it isn’t so much about what we say – although we have a great to say that is unique to our lives – it is about being present to the public in ways that they can come to terms with our humanity, and learn to respect our human dignity. Cisgender people (of every sexual orientation) who know little about us need to look us in the eye and hear directly what we have to share, and what our many gifts to society entail. 
Monika: Would it not be better if the transgender community was not a part of the group that is influential but still based on sexual orientation?
Chloe: It would be less confusing, yes, but LGB people are our strongest allies and without them, we would be in a very disempowered, vulnerable place. It is hard (and seemingly ungrateful) for us to “demand” of those LGB people who are advocating for us to learn more about us, and to include our voices whenever possible, but that is what we must demand.

An avid equestrian, Chloe and her
daughter attend the Washington Horse
Show almost every year.

Monika: Is there any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats address the needs and rights of the US transgender community?
Chloe: Yes, although one must be wary of over-generalizing. Still, we and our issues are simply at best not a priority for most Republicans, and at worst we represent a grave moral (and religious) threat to their notions of what America and American values are all about. Unfortunately, there seem to be very few opportunities to engage with them on what those values are, or ought to be – and instead a great degree of strident polarization around issues like access to public toilets.
Mostly they simply don’t know very much about us, but the extreme right-wing media – which many Republicans access regularly - exacerbates matters terribly by adopting a hostile, ill-informed, and often blatantly transphobic position toward us (or simply makes us the target of humiliating “humor” intended to dehumanize us).
Monika: Having worked on many international projects, you have a global vision of transgender rights all over the world. What are the most visible trends now?
Chloe: That’s easy. Globally, the rise of civil society’s voice buoyed by the Internet and social media has allowed transgender people almost everywhere to make our presence known, to share reliable information about the transgender phenomenon, and to build alliances across other human rights and social justice elements of civil society. Concurrent with this rise in civil society voice, there has been a commensurate push-back from right-wing and authoritarian groups who wield enormous power and who are not at all reticent to use violence.
The result is that as transgender people, we have become extremely vulnerable to targeting, and many of us are now seeking deep cover. As our voices become muted, we are losing a vital battle to have our dignity respected -but for so many of us, there is very little option but to go back into the shadows if we wish to stay alive.
After all, the strength and determination of many (and arguably most) democratic countries to champion human rights and human dignity now are very much in question, especially with the rise in right-wing populist governments like the Trump administration, and the global rise in authoritarian, autocratic governments like the Putin regime.
Monika: Are there any differences in the way transgender people are treated on different continents? Are there any particular countries that stand out in terms of respect for transgender rights?
Chloe: It’s largely a question of access to objective information, overall education levels, and the existence of human rights-focused culture. (A good indicator is to look at how well, or badly, women and girls are treated). Where populations are not as well educated, and where human rights are not well supported, transgender people are viewed – very negatively – through the lenses of superstition, rigid cultural and religious values, and political expediency.
Through any of these lenses, our humanity is lost, and we become an abstract “threat” or object of disdain and ridicule. And we almost always, everywhere, have our gender identity issues conflated with sexual orientation, and become universally classified as “gay”.
Many of us are not gay, and even for those of us who are, our sexual orientation is way down the list of our existential struggle to be accepted. We do best in terms of inclusion and acceptance in the Scandinavian countries, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in northern Europe.
Similarly, we are making great strides in part of Latin America (Argentina, Chile, parts of Mexico). Most of the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, much of Central America, and parts of Asia are toxic for us, and southern Europe (with the praiseworthy exception of Malta) is far from embracing us.

Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pills whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome …
Chloe: That’s a discourse of the privileged, mostly from the Global North. Around the world, gender-confirming surgeries are very difficult to access, and generally very expensive – far out of the reach of most transgender people. Even for many in the Global North, we accessed these services at the cost of never being able to retire – all of our savings and whatever we could borrow went into the cost (and initial surgical discomfort) of claiming our physical integrity.
The entire notion of “passing” (instead of just “being”) carries with it a sense of deception and avoids the more important challenge to all societies everywhere – to evolve morally to the point where gender identity is not constrained to certain proscribed norms, and where the essential humanity of all persons – no matter how they express this in terms of gender – is accommodated and even celebrated.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Chloe: Yes. Petra Doan, a well-known transgender Quaker woman, was a strong influence. I was (and continue to be) also deeply moved by transgender authors such as Julia Serano, Jan Morris, Deirdre McCloskey, and the poet Joy Ladin. Also, the intersex Ugandan man, Julius Kaggwa’s memoir “From Juliet to Julius” was very inspirational.
Monika: Are there any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Chloe: The most inspiration has come from the transgender women and men in the developing countries in which I have worked and traveled – their courage and determination to claim their identity despite enormous odds against them are remarkable: women like BeyoncĂ© Karungi in Uganda, Barbra Wangare Muruga, and Audrey Mbugua Ithibu in Kenya, Nisha Ayub in Malaysia, Simran Shaikh in India, Hua Boonyapisomparn from Thailand, and so many others. And there are many transgender men as well of remarkable courage and determination.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Chloe: By far the hardest part was coming to peace with communicating this to my two young children.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Chloe: I like to dress as well as I can afford (which is constrained), appropriate to my age, and my choices are often both femme and professional. I love dresses and skirts, and summer is my favorite season because I can wear very feminine tank tops and light cotton skirts. And (of course), I love shoes!

Chloe as a speaker at a Clinton election rally hosted
by foreign policy professions, at the Cobalt Club in
Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood in 2016.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Chloe: My memoir, titled “Self-ish: A Transgender Journey Toward Wholeness” will be published in January 2018 by Red Hen Press in Los Angeles. I’ll be doing an extensive book tour to let people know about it.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Chloe: I’m just starting my new full-time job at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which constitutes my main “project”.
I also continue to teach evening graduate courses at the University of Maryland on human dignity and human rights. And I am deeply involved in the resistance movement that is now building in this country against the Donald Trump administration.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Chloe: Girls and women – many of us do not transition until later in life. I think that finding a really good counselor (trained specifically in transgender issues) is enormously helpful. If that isn’t available, then make sure that you have a number of truly outstanding friends – no one gets through this alone.
Monika: Chloe, thank you for the interview! 

For more information about Chloe Schwenke and her work, visit her Website, Facebook, or Twitter

All the photos: courtesy of Chloe Schwenke.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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